The 5 best (and worst) game preorder trends

Retailers love customers who preorder games, and they're working harder and harder to come up with gift items to offer to those who do.

The preorder has long been a staple of the video game retail industry, and with good reason. You get a customer to purchase a game ahead of its release in return for a small trinket. The hope is that buyer will keep coming back to the store, and in turn the store can provide more accurate supply numbers to the publisher and thus ensure an adequate stock. It's also been a great way for retailers to sit on that cash long before ever handing over the product.

What has made this more interesting over the years is how far some retailers and game publishers have gone to get people to come to them, and them only. This arms race has lead to some great, and some not-so-great, trends in preorder goodies. Here are five of the best and five of the worst in the last couple of years.

The best

1. Getting the game before its release date

What is easily the holy grail of preorder goodies is getting the game ahead of its official street date. Very few games have ever done this intentionally, though. This usually happens only when a retailer mistakenly sells the title without knowing there's a specific release date, or when games are shipped by mail and the snafu is committed by the shipping company.

In the case of Call of Duty: World at War, which was released last November, GameStop sold the title a day ahead of its official release to those who had preordered it. According to Planet Xbox 360, the game retailer went directly to FedEx's shipping facilities to pick up the game ahead of its slated delivery time.

Also, customers who prebought Mythic Entertainment's Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning got to build their characters and start playing on the game's servers four days before the game launched--if they bought the collector's edition, while preorderers of the standard edition got a two day head start. The same went for those who preordered Pirates of the Burning Sea, who got to start playing the MMO 15 days ahead of people who simply bought it on its release day.

2. Free games

Coming up just short of getting the new game early is publishers who offer a copy of one of their previous titles free of charge. That was the case for Rockstar games, which through Valve's Steam online game store gave PC gamers who preordered Grand Theft Auto 4 a free copy of GTA: Vice City, a title from earlier in the GTA series.

Preorderers of Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts on Xbox 360 got a free code for the original Banjo-Kazooie game on XBOX Live Arcade a whole two weeks before it was officially released to other gamers.

Lionhead studios gave preorderers of the Xbox 360 version of Fable 2 a free (normally $10) Xbox Live Arcade title that let them play some of the title's in-game minigames ahead of the release, as well as put any gold they earned to use in the game once they got it.

Earlier notables include: Preorderers of Red Alert 3 getting a free Red Alert 2 download, and the Zelda: Ocarina of Time disc that came with the Zelda Wind Waker for Gamecube, which had been one of the top games of the year four years prior. Nintendo went through the effort of porting it from the previous generation's system to the GameCube, as well as throwing in a more difficult variation of the game that had previously been unreleased in the U.S. just for those buyers. Now that's cool.

3. Getting the "better" edition of the game, free of charge

The "limited" editions of games almost always cost more, and come with a few extra goodies like a download code from extra in-game content, or a spiffy case with things like concept art books and soundtrack CDs.

This time last year, Ubisoft surprised gamers who had preordered the latest Prince of Persia game with a free upgrade to the limited edition, which featured a making-of featurette, digital art book, and the soundtrack. It certainly wasn't as lavish as some other limited-edition packages, but it was free.

Developer Arksys did the same thing earlier this year with its 2D fighter BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger. Prebuyers who purchased the normal game ahead of time got upgraded to the limited-edition free of charge, which included a video strategy guide and two-disc soundtrack with close to 50 tracks.

Those who preordered Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin for the Nintendo DS got a slew of goodies as part of the upgrde to the 20th anniversary edition. Konami

Other games that have gotten at least the freebie soundtrack include Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin (which also came with an extra Nintendo DS stylus, art book, and game case), Demon's Souls, Persona, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, Legacy of Ys I & II, and Chrono-Trigger.

4. Playing with the developer

Developers of multiplayer titles often hop online to play with folks who buy their games in the first few weeks after launch. But Mikey Neumann, who is Gearbox's creative director, went one step further to promote the studio's upcoming Borderlands game. Neumann tweeted that he would give any fans who sent a photo of themselves preordering the title a chance to play with him, as well as score some free in-game "loot."

Borderlands' creative director Mikey Neumann offered those who had preordered the game a chance to play with him and score some free in-game "loot." CNET

Gaming blog Kotaku picked up on Neumann's tweet, which subsequently flooded Neumann's in-box with photos and requests. But you have to give the studio some credit--it's thinking outside the box by blending two great things together: one-on-one time with the person who made the game, and a surprise in-game treat for its biggest fans.

5. Discounts

Toys R Us was offering those who preordered Halo 3:ODST a free $12 action figure and a $20 gift card. Not too shabby. Toys R Us

Retailers like Amazon, Target, Toys R Us, BestBuy, and Wal-Mart now frequently discount the prices of games or offer gift cards to people who want to buy the title early. This goes against the very nature of buying a game new as opposed to used, but rewards eager buyers with a lower price as long as they plan on buying it ahead of time.

Even if it's $5 to $10 off a $60 game, that beats paying full price in the time between when it's released and when it finally goes on sale later on in its lifespan.

One of the more aggressive offerings in the last few months came from Toys R Us, which offered preorderers of Bungie's $60 Halo 3:ODST a $20 gift card and a free action figure worth $12.

The worst

1. Cheap trinkets

Poorly made goods made by third parties are a dime a dozen. One of the worst recent examples is Epic Games and Best Buy, who get an A for effort but an F in execution when they gave preorderers of Gears of War 2's Limited Edition a free remote control tank that's featured in the game. Who doesn't like a free RC toy, right? Problem is, the toy (which was valued at $30) was so badly designed it didn't work on carpet, or even steer and move at the same time. The wheels locked up against the body of the toy when you tried to execute a turn, rendering it useless.

Other notables include: The too-big-to-be-a-keychain plush keychain preorder bonus for Phoenix Wright 3, and the snow globe given to people who had preordered the bloody and controversial Resident Evil 5 game at Game Crazy.

Buyers who preordered Resident Evil 5 from retailer Game Crazy got this snow globe for a zombie apocalypse survival horror game. Sounds like a good match to us. Game Crazy

2. Cheats

In a practice that's become all too regular, some publishers are giving those who preorder cheats, or ways to play that make the experience easier without any sort of skill whatsoever.

A great example of this is GameStop and Game Crazy's preorder bonuses for Uncharted 2: Among Thieves that can change the difficulty of the game from the get-go. Game Crazy's preorder bonus gives players a currency multiplier that lets them earn in-game money faster than those without it. It's a limited-time effect, but means that those players can unlock things faster than those who didn't buy it there. GameStop's is just as innocuous, giving players a multiplayer perk from the get-go that drops a grenade whenever they're killed by another player--something that would otherwise have to be earned by playing through the game.

Depending on where you buy the game Blur, you may have a distinct advantage over people who bought it elsewhere. CNET

The two retailers also competed for sales with exclusive cheats for the game Blur. Ordering at GameStop gives players a souped up Ford Bronco to race in multiplayer, along with a way to double the speed of acquiring car upgrades for the first ten races raced. Game Crazy, on the other hand, offered users double the cash they'd normally get in their first three single-player races, letting them buy more cars and parts faster than someone who bought the game in-store.

The problem with these offers is that they make it easier to advance with less effort, and thus reward laziness. This may be OK for the single-player campaigns, but when the cheats spill over into multiplayer competition, it's just not fair.

3. Early access to the demo, or multiplayer betas

Want access to certain demos? You can either wait it out, or shell out early to get access ahead of time. CNET

Free demos that are available before a game is out, and help those who are on the fence get a feel for the game before buying are basically a thing of the past. Sure, they might show up a few months after a game is released, but what's become the tried and true trend these days is the prerelease private beta demo. These are often sold as timed exclusives to those who preorder the title, or in some cases, those who have purchase another title from the same publisher (see the Halo 3 multiplayer demo access sold as part of buying the game Crackdown).

Some recent examples include Valve's upcoming Left 4 Dead 2 multiplayer demo, which will be available to those who preordered the game in the next few weeks--ahead of its general availability. Also, Uncharted 2's "exclusive" multiplayer beta that was given to Gamestop preorderers for just a week before being open to everyone. Other games that did this recently include Madden 10, Brutal legend and Resistance Retribution.

4. Only getting certain levels or in-game characters

For the biggest fan, getting the complete version of some games is becoming more of a challenge. Both publishers and retailers are at work to make this a little more difficult, either by offering slightly different versions of the game depending on the platform (see Batman: Arkham Asylum on Xbox 360 vs. PS3), or offering specific content depending on where you preorder it--all without the chance to get it later on down the line.

Recent examples of this include Assassin's Creed 2, which will give GameStop purchasers exclusive access to a hidden area of the game that will eventually be available to other users--although they may have to pay for it. The makers of Ratchet and Clank: A Crack in Time did the same thing, giving GameStop preorderers an extra level to play on that other users won't be able to get.

The only way to play as Sergeant Johnson in Halo 3:ODST was to preorder at certain retailers. Bungie

It's not just limited to levels though, publishers are doing it with in-game characters as well. Preorderers of Halo 3:ODST who bought at GameStop could get to play as Sergeant Johnson in one of the multiplayer modes, while those who preordered the upcoming MAG title for PS3 could get one of three special characters depending on which retailer they bought it from. The same was done for the upcoming Bioshock 2, and this year's release of Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2.

5. Golden guns/items/characters

Golden guns belong in one place, and one place only--James Bond games. Though lately, that just doesn't seem to be the case. People who preordered Naughty Dog's Uncharted 2: Among Thieves from Best Buy get a special code for golden versions of all the guns in the game, which can be used in the multiplayer mode. The golden variation of these firearms offer no incentive over the normal versions, they just look different and let everyone know where you bought it right before you mow them down.

Uncharted 2's golden guns can only be had by those who preorder at Best Buy. CNET

Uncharted wasn't the first to do this though. Though not a preorder bonus, Epic offered buyers of Gears of War 2 the same golden gun multiplayer treatment if they plunked down on the more expensive limited edition version. These too offered no incentive over the normal version.

Besides guns, those who preordered the game Dark Void at GameStop get a golden jetpack. Unlike the golden guns mentioned above though, this one is actually more useful than the normal version, offering unlimited booster fuel, which as mentioned before, is a jerk move.

Related: The golden player skins for Optimus Prime and Megatron in the Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen game, which players who preordered at GameStop could get as a bonus. Like the golden guns, this came in the form of a special code and offered no special in-game benefits whatsoever.

Any we missed? Let us know in the comments.

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